The following article was originally prepared by the staffs of Leatherneck Magazine and the USMCHC Public affairs Office.
At first glance, when you see Marines of the United States Marine Corps Historical Company (USMCHC) at a program some of them may look unique compared to today’s Corps, but would blend in easily with the leathernecks of World War Two, the Boxer Rebellion, or even the American Revolution.
But that’s the point.
Their mission is the presentation and preservation of Marine Corps history. Borrowing an educational technique first developed by the National Park Service called “living history” as one of their many educational tools, and applying the concept of history presented “by people (Marines), to people, about people (Marines),” the USMCHC endeavors to take history from behind glass and put a human face on it. They continually go to great lengths to maintain and present the high standards first set by the Marines of past eras. This pride in their work stems from a desire to honor fellow Marines of the past, and accurately pass that heritage on to Americans of today.
When GySgt Thomas Williams, and Sgt Timothy Kueberth first founded the USMCHC in 1990, it started out as a small part-time operation, offering presentations at Marine Corps Active and Reserve units, recruiting stations, and National and State Historic sites in the Mid-Atlantic area. Since then the Historical Company has grown into a major nationwide professional nonprofit corporation working in direct support of the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. They function both as a “traveling” educational organization developing and presenting highly diversified historical programing throughout the country, and as a specialist agency providing consultation, logistical, and material development and support to other agencies in providing Marine Corps historical programing. Through lectures, interactive exhibits, demonstrations, classes, and ceremonies the USMCHC serves a wide diversity of both civilian and military audiences. In addition to a small full time management staff, the Company currently has over 65 active volunteer members stationed in 9 geographic Districts across the country, most of whom are current or former active-duty Marines. The USMCHC also regularly incorporates Active Duty Marines from local Commands and Bases in their programs.
Williams, who now functions as the Company’s full-time director and CEO, said that gaining membership, especially eventual qualification as a “living history” interpretive specialist, is not easy. Each member must first become a capable educator and historical “interpreter.” Those that eventually qualify as specialists who put on a historical uniform, must also become proficient in the military skills of the Marines they are representing as well. “If you are going to adequately represent the Marine Corps, you must first learn that the uniform doesn’t make the Marine [interpreter], the person does. History was not made by the artifacts that we use; it was made by the most valuable commodity of the Corps, its people!”
Although the Historical Company is managed by a professional staff, their front line historical interpreters and historians are dedicated volunteers. Even so, to ensure the optimum in quality programing, all members are annually tested and recertified in both educational skills and historical knowledge. Testing includes: Marine Corps history, both general, and of specific period(s) being represented; military skills; material history and usage of equipment; customs of the service; and familiarity with the weapons and tactics of past eras. In addition, every member, regardless if they are to function in modern clothing or in period uniform, are also extensively trained, and annually evaluated, on their educational and interpretive skills and presentation techniques. “The ability to effectively relate historical information and concepts to the public is just as important as mastering the historical skills and knowledge.” Each ‘living history’ qualified member is also required to complete a physical fitness test each year. This test, based in part on the Marine Corps’ current PT Test, and old Physical Readiness Test (PRT), is necessary from both a safety and historical standpoint. Members are often involved in training demonstrations such as amphibious landings, negotiation of obstacle courses, or even climbing the rigging of a frigate which are as physically demanding now as they were then. Testing upper body strength, abdominal strength, balance, and endurance, the USMCHC’s PRT follows closely the combat conditioning given past era Marines, and in many ways is as rigorous as today’s Marine Corps PT test.
The purpose of all of this is to prepare the Company’s historical interpreters to present the most realistic, and human image of Marines of the past to the public. “To do justice to the persons (Marines) that you are emulating, you must represent the best of what they were. To do any less is a disservice to them, yourself, the Corps, and the Country we represent” stated LtCol (Ret.) J. Colin Smith, a Senior Interpretive Specialist and coordinator of the Company’s 7th (Texas) District.
The USMCHC is called upon to present a wide variety of programs, ranging from traveling museum exhibits, symposiums and lectures, ceremonies and color guards, to historical demonstrations. Williams stated that living history, combined with other presentation techniques, is one of the more effective educational tools that we have at our disposal. It allows the public to go beyond seeing artifacts behind glass, and associate them with the people who made the history. It lets them use all of their senses, and in a limited way immerse themselves in history, as they interact with the interpreters. From the smell of military canvas, to hearing commands on the drill field, to seeing a platoon of Marines in training. All this allows the public to understand that those Marines of the past were real people, very much like themselves.”
As part of their own outreach programing the USMCHC is continually developing “partnerships” with various historical sites where the Marine Corps was in some way involved. The objective is to tell the Corps’ story at these sites through living history and contemporary programs, development of related permanent exhibits, and printed brochures based on the concept title History Through the Eyes of Marines. Currently, some these partnerships include Harpers Ferry National Historical Park where the story of the Marines that captured John Brown in 1859 is presented; Ft. McHenry National Historical Site, focusing on the Marines during the War of 1812; and the Battleship North Carolina Memorial where the history of “seagoing” Marines during WW2 is told. Additional partnerships are under development in California, Texas, Florida, and other historic sites across the country where the Marine Corps’ presents throughout our Nation’s history had an impact.
Parallel to their other programming the Historical Company has developed and implemented a comprehensive “History in the Classrooms” program. Again, based on the Title History through the Eyes of Marines, this program takes Marine Corps history into the schools through a variety of programs, and offers historically based “leadership camps” that allow high school students to experience a little of what the veterans went through to become Marines. The focus of the program is to stimulate the students to gain a better understanding of the relevance of history, and how it has affected their lives today. Emphasis is placed on what the veterans experienced and how their accomplishments have influenced society. The Camps teach and reinforce the values of teamwork, confidence, integrity, and commitment.
Along with public educational programs the Historical Company is often called upon to present PMEs to our Active Duty Marines at Bases around the country. “This type of training compliments their current military skills and provides a solid base for our Marines to gain a true understanding of their heritage, and get a real world hands on understanding of what it took to get where we are today.”
The one thing that you will not see when you visit a USMCHC program is a battle “reenactment”. “Many of the Company’s members have had real world combat experience. “We have interpreters, educators, and consultants on board who are veterans of WW2, Korea, Vietnam, and even the current war in Iraq, and the one thing that we are certain of is that you cannot (nor would we want to) accurately or realistically recreate the horrors and intensity of combat for a live audience. On the other hand we can present training demonstrations that are every bit as real as when they were originally conducted, and hold the excitement factor for the public, while giving them an accurate picture of Marine Corps life,” quoted CWO3 (Ret) William Hutchison, the Company’s Deputy Director of Programing and Marine veteran of Viet Nam.
The USMCHC has an extensive quantity and wide array of company owned and maintained historical weapons, uniforms, and equipment to help present programs covering Marine Corps history from the Continental Marines to Operation Iraqi Freedom. With a large stock of reproduction uniforms and equipment the HC is able to provide basic issues for use by members, equip additional active duty Marines for special large scale programs, and even handle up to 100 students at a time for their living classrooms programs.
The Company also keeps on hand an inventory of original artifacts of various periods for their traveling and permanent exhibits. Although they readily accept donations from veterans or their families for use in exhibits, they prefer to use museum quality reproductions for their active living history programs. “We cannot risk using original equipment in the field. The original items are irreplaceable artifacts and need to be preserved for future generations. Besides, when the veterans were using them they were not antiques, they were new. Our reproduction uniforms and equipment must be of museum quality, but have the appearance of recent issue,” Williams said. Many pieces of uniforms and equipment for the USMCHCs inventory have been used in numerous museum exhibits including many of the cast figures in the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and are regularly used in live programs, including the Commandant’s Marine Corps Birthday Ball, and special classes at the US Naval Academy.
In addition to the development and presentation of live programs the Historical Company is regularly called upon by other agencies to act as consultants, and instructors. The USMCHC has provided to the Motion Picture industry lead historians, material specialists, and trainers on such films as “Windtalkers”, “Flags Of Our Fathers”, and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” as well as numerous documentaries. They also offer training and seminars on presentation skills and techniques to the staffs of museums and historic sites throughout the country.
The driving force that motivates these Marines and historians to dedicate so much effort to their mission can be summed up this way: “Watching the veterans’ eyes light up, especially fellow Marines, as they reminisce, knowing they are being remembered, and seeing our younger generation develop an understanding of the Corps and a bond with these veterans – there’s a lot of gratification in that – and that’s what it’s all about,” Williams stated. “Making sure that the Marine Corps, its importance and significant contributions, and the people who made the Corps what it is today, are never forgotten.”
Editor’s note: The USMCHC is a winner of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s COL. JOHN H. MAGRUDER AWARD for excellence in the presentation of Marine Corps History, and MCHF Distinguished Service Award. At present, the Company is directly involved with the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation developing various outreach public educational projects. They are also directly contributing to the development of Marine Corps museums throughout the country including The National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, VA, the Marine Corps Legacy Museum in Arkansas, and the Museum of the Marines being developed in North Carolina as well as continuing to present an ever growing number of traveling historical / educational public programs and Marine PMEs. Ironically, many of the USMCHC’s active duty interpretive members are currently in, or recently returned from Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf (some from their third and fourth tours), making Marine Corps history of their own.
If you are interested in becoming a supporter or volunteer member of the USMCHC or would like more information about the organization and its programs, call (301) 662-3141, or e-mail DirectorUSMCHC@aol.com